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food / travel

The Coolest Set, A Local Eye On Hollywood's Iceland Invasion

On the set of Justice League
On the set of Justice League
Philippe Chassepot

DJUPAVIK — About a century ago, farmers from the remote region of Arneshreppur didn't know the value of money. In general, bartering was still the only source of survival in this northwestern region, largely cut off from the rest of the island nation. Then, in 1934, a herring factory was opened in the small village of Djupavik.

Eventually more than 300 more people settled in the area over the subsequent ten years, before the fish became scarce, and the factory's inevitable closing in 1954 that sank the fjord region back into despair.

Djupavik then became a kind of ghost town, until one family saw some potential in these few shacks built at the foot of a gigantic waterfall. Eva Sigurbjörnsdottir and her husband Petur first bought back an abandoned house that had been the property of the state, with plans to convert into a friendly hotel. Later, they would buy the abandoned factory, an extraordinary, almost insane structure that had included a storage room of herring oil with a capacity of 2,000 tons that would one day host a concert by the popular Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros.

It is beautiful, cold, intense, fascinating, but also rather strange — not the first choice for your honeymoon. But like other places in Iceland, a prime choice for Hollywood location scouts. Star Wars: Rogue One, Captain America, Prometheus, Oblivion, Interstellar, Thor, Transformers, Fast and Furious andGame of Thrones share one thing in common: All were shot in Iceland.

Zack Snyder is a 51-year-old Hollywood director, willing to spare nothing to find the phantasmagorical settings that help drive the success of his blockbusters. For the current superhero release, Justice League, one of the most expensive films ever, with an estimated budget of $300 million, Snyder had identified six sites. His Icelandic scouts recommended Djupavik. Intrigued, the filmmaker decided to visit the small village. A helicopter ride, a few glances down on land and he announced: "Cancel everything else, we will not move from here."

Our visit starts with Magnus Karl Petursson, Eva's son, who now runs Hotel Djupavik. His autumn 2016 bookings had been easy enough to manage: The crew had booked a full year in advance. Six weeks spread over September and October: All 14 rooms of the hotel occupied, mattresses laid out everywhere in the building — and a village completely transfigured by 120 caravans on the beach nearby.

Magnus is a little concerned about the idea of saying too much, bound by duty of confidentiality. But this fantastic storyteller has trouble containing himself and reveals some tasty details and anecdotes. "The director thought our volcanic stones were magnificent. He wanted to carry some on the beach, before giving up because of their weight. So, he asked his set designers to make some fake ones." Just rocks "of cinema", much like the icebergs on the edge of the beach. Or the brand new red house right next to the hotel. Unrecognizable in the film because it's artificially constructed to make the whole setting appear rusty and colder.

Cancel everything else, we will not move from here.

There is also a perfect boat, it too full of rust. The one that hosted the workers in the middle of the last century, the one which Batman and Aquaman stand before, engaged in a full discussion. A scene that would have had to take place elsewhere, according to Magnus: "Zack Snyder had found the ideal place to film the scene, but the stairs were too narrow. He got them built wider. Before changing his mind, once it was ready …"

End of story? No, since as a result of the shooting, the production had insisted on the destruction of the new stairs for replacement by the former, while Magnus wanted to keep them to avoid a potential lawsuit, according to the army of lawyers who look carefully at each clause. Everything was settled "Hollywood-style": The new staircase had been disassembled, the former reassembled, photos were taken to prove that everything had been repaired.

Other than that, tales of the actors? Well, there was Ben Affleck as Batman, who had to mount a horse at the top of the waterfall overlooking the village. Problem: He is 6 feet 4 inches tall and the Icelandic horses are the smallest in the world. The producers went in the search of the largest equine in the country, to no avail. Solution: finding a shorter stunt double for Affleck.

Magnus speaks of "the coolest" time of his life to describe these intense weeks, the warehouse transformed into a giant bar with karaoke, billiards, foosball table and sound system after the days of work; the last day of shooting and the final "cut" yelled by Zack Snyder, greeted with screams of joy and the beer fete that followed.

He won't say how much money he earned from this unforgettable experience, but recalled a friend telling him: "It's Hollywood, you can ask for at least ten times more than usual."

For Einar Hansen Tomasson, chief for the promotion of cinema production in Iceland, business is booming. "My job is to be proactive, facilitate contacts, introduce people to each other. My first year, in 2004, I didn't know anyone in Los Angeles and I used to awkwardly introduce myself, like: "Hello, I am Icelandic." Today, I make a call the day before I arrive and now it is rather like: "Hi guys, I'm in town.""

Things first kicked off in 2006, withFlags Of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood. A shooting with thousands of extras, a huge project for Iceland. Top producers, especially from the U.S., then realized that they could make movies amid the uniquely breathtaking natural environment. "Yes, of course, with all these landscapes that we cannot find elsewhere," Tomasson said. "Nature does the work for us."

When Iceland's currency collapsed with the economic crisis in 2008, the financial conditions made the country even more interesting for foreign producers. Now, the Icelandic State also reimburses up to 25% of the production costs incurred on site.

"Today, Iceland has been put on the map for several reasons," continues Tomasson." Our production companies are doing a great job with a very hard-working staff. In Europe, working time in the film industry is ten hours per day over five days. I even think that it is eight hours in France. In Iceland, it is twelve hours daily, six days a week. It is a country of fishermen: When we see a fish, we catch it."

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